The ancient Greek thinker Xenophanes observed that the gods of each country looked very much like the citizens of that country. He was talking, of course, about polytheistic religions in which gods were imagined to have physical bodies. But his observation can be extended to religions in which God is not conceived of as having a physical form. Even if God doesn’t look like us, we tend to think about God by using human traits with which we are familiar. For example, there are biblical accounts in which God becomes angry and acts in ways that sound very much like a human being throwing a temper tantrum. Sometimes the result is massive destruction directed toward those who have aroused God’s anger. Is that the way God is, or is it more like a projection onto God based on what happens when human beings have great power?
Some people think that if God is described in a particular way in the Bible, the account must be accepted as accurate. But reflective believers tend to say that we should not take literally portrayals that ascribe human imperfections to God. Those portrayals should instead be regarded as picturesque ways of thinking about God that require qualification or redescription. A common way of redescribing references to God’s anger is to suggest that they are metaphorical ways of portraying God enacting just punishment on those who have done wrong.
But this way of interpreting biblical stories of God’s wrath is inadequate. Many of the cases in which God is described as acting out of anger or wrath involve massive suffering that does not distinguish between the innocent and the guilty, and often the suffering God is said to inflict is wildly disproportionate to any wrongs. The problem is not just that these writers have ascribed something like human anger to God, but that they have also described God as lashing out in the way humans do when they have lost control. If it is accepted that God sends plagues or other disasters, we can’t simply think of these acts as a matter of just punishment.
One approach to these stories is to say that the authors described things without making all the distinctions we might make. We would distinguish between God as an ultimate cause of everything and particular causes like tornados or disease or attacks by an enemy army. So, it is not really God who is sending massive suffering. The suffering results instead from these secondary causes. There is much to be said for this move, but we should notice that accepting it means changing the biblical accounts significantly. The biblical author is often thinking of what we would call secondary causes as means by which God does something. If we think that particular events should not be thought of as God’s acts, we have to think of these causes as having a kind of independence that God is not controlling.
When we think of a powerful being who creates a world, it seems natural to imagine that being as using power to maintain control over what happens. If people get out of line and need to be zapped, God zaps them. Something like this idea is assumed by some biblical writers. But there is also a counter-story in the Bible. It is the story of how God relinquishes power to let created things have control. In this counter-story there may still be something that could be called judgment, but it amounts to the consequences we bring on ourselves when we live according to hate or greed or egoism instead of choosing the way of love. When Paul in Romans 1 describes various ways of living that lead to destruction, he doesn’t speak of God zapping people. But he does say repeatedly, “God gave them up.” What we could call God’s punishment is not a matter of lightning bolts from heaven that stop us in our tracks, but God allowing us to get the consequences of the kind of life we choose.
Christians say that the fullest revelation of God is in the life and teachings of Jesus. If there are stories, even stories in the Bible, that conflict with that revelation, what we find in Jesus takes priority. So, what do we find in Jesus that is relevant to assessing the accounts of God lashing out violently to punish people? Jesus taught that God sends good things (sun and rain) to people regardless of whether they are good or evil. He told his followers to respond to enemies with love, saying that this way of living was imitating God. He described God as like a father who is eager to welcome back and celebrate the return of a son who has publicly insulted him. And when confronted by violent opposition, he refuses to meet force with force, but accepts the suffering and death that go with renouncing violence. Jesus teaches by example that God is not like the tyrant of our imagination who sends destruction on all who offer opposition, but rather one who lays down coercive power to allow us to choose our own way..
Some people think that all biblical stories fit together into a whole that reveals what God is like. But trying to fit all these stories together in that way leaves us with a God who resembles humans who suffer from multiple personality disorder. The controlling God of wrath who is focused on delivering punishment can be found in the Bible. But we also find the God who seeks our redemption through means other than threat or force. If we try to project what God is like based on our experience of how humans use power, the God who controls by threats and punishment is one we might come up with. We would be unlikely to consider a powerful being who gives up power to grant our independence. But the revelation in Jesus points toward a God who seeks to win our hearts rather than controlling us through fear.
For a fuller discussion of the issue in this reflection, see chapter 11 (Divine Judgment and Punishment) in Changing Your Mind Without Losing Your Faith.